Afterthoughts: Risky Business

When an arcade’s not really an arcade.

What’s up with the rash of adult arcade joints that have been popping up all over Oahu? You know the ones: the spots with names like Winner’z Zone, Products Direct Sweepstakes, and Tilt, with blinking LED signs in their windows promising “$5,000 cash prizes.”

At first I took them for kid’s video arcades, but the tinted windows, late night hours and the fact that there were never any kids hanging out suggested more adult diversions.

I peered into a newly opened Winning Zone downtown, and couldn’t see the appeal. No Street Fighter machines, no zoom-y racing car setups. Not much of anything, in fact—just a few casino-style gaming machines in a cheaply carpeted room. The claw machine featured, instead of a pile of stuffed animals and toys, a few iPod knockoffs and Zippo lighters scattered on the bottom of the prize tray. The place was deserted. What was going on here?

illustration: daniel fishel

A few weeks later, I walked by the same downtown arcade and, not only was it not empty, it was actually busy. The owners had installed more machines, and almost all the seats were filled. It was a mixed crowd, too: grandmother types, middle-age tough guys, a young woman with a five-year-old plopped on the stool beside her. Even weirder. I had to go in.

Once inside, I changed a $20 bill for singles at the cashier’s window, and dove in. First stop, the “Bonus Time Sweepstakes” video slots. After feeding in dollar bills, the machine gives you credits that let you play a variety of slot games, ranging from the traditional fruit-machine style to more animated versions with names like “The Caribbean Pirates.” It didn’t end up mattering much—they all swallowed my credits with equal speed.

Discouraged, I switched to a more tangible game: a machine that slowly jiggles piles of quarters enticingly close to a ledge. Feeding my own quarters into the machine via a swiveling slot made it possible to nudge some of the coins off the edge and into the payoff tray. With every quarter I rolled in, it looked as if a coin avalanche was imminent. Just one more, c’mon, you can do it! Apart from a couple of stray drops, though, my money mostly just added to the silver pile, and I moved on to the claw machine.

Claw machine, I hate you.

Determined not to leave the place completely empty-handed, I spent one last dollar on a two-minute pre-paid calling card with a hanafuda matching game on the back that would pay out $1,000 if I uncovered three cranes in a row. No cranes for me, though. Game over. (I tried dialing the 1-800 number on the card later, only to be told that I had “entered an invalid PIN, which cannot be confirmed.”)

So, I finally got it. These places aren’t arcades, they’re off-brand casinos. They’re Vegas lite. The arcade owners like to say their machines aren’t games of chance, but at the end of the day, it’s thinly disguised gambling. According to the Hawaii Revised Statutes, gambling is defined as staking money on any “contest, game, gaming scheme, or gaming device in which the outcome depends in a material degree upon an element of chance, notwithstanding that skill of the contestants may also be a factor.” Seems pretty straightforward.

To be clear, I don’t think gambling is necessarily a horrible thing. Players walk in hoping to win money, and even if most of them walk out with less than they had coming in, it’s apparently an enjoyable experience. We are, after all, the state that treats Las Vegas like an unofficial neighbor island. At least keeping it in-state is saving some residents the cost of plane fare and a hotel room.

If you dig Hawaii gambling, though, you might want to get while the getting’s good. Three arcades in Hilo were raided by police in July, and state legislators such as Cynthia Thielen are promising to crack down on quasi-casinos. “I think they’re illegal under present law, but I’m also working on legislation for this coming session to make it absolutely clear,” Thielen says.

Looks like arcade owners might soon have to fold ‘em.